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Leading up to the King James Translation

The King James Version (KJV) is right hailed as one of the great classics – arguably *the* great classic – of English literature.  But most people have no idea where it came from and how it came into existence.  And so I am going to take a side-path (OK, a tangent) in my thread to devote a few posts to the KJV, also known as the Authorized Version (AV).

To start with, contrary to what a lot of people think, the KJV, which appeared in 1611 under, yup, King James of England, was not the first translation of the Bible into English.  Not even close.  The first English translation was by John Wycliff (or his followers), done long before, in 1382.  Wycliff, however, did not translate the Bible from the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, but from the Latin Vulgate.  That makes sense, since the Catholic church had always used the Latin version (ultimately going back to the fifth-century church father Jerome).  And almost no one in the 14th century even knew Greek and Hebrew, let alone had access to Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.

Wycliff’s translation caused a furor in the Catholic Church (there was, of course, no Protestant church yet – not till the early 16th century. Christians in the west were all Catholic).  The furor arose in part because …

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How Do We Know What “Most Scholars” Think?
Where Did the King James Bible Come From?



  1. Avatar
    Tom  January 19, 2017

    Another excellent post. I appreciate this thread.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  January 19, 2017

    Burned at the stake for translating the Bible into the vernacular. So you’re telling me he got off easy.

  3. Avatar
    Todd  January 19, 2017

    I would like to know more about Tyndale…details of his life, the story of the translation, and why such a horrible death was felt warranted for making a vernacular translation of the Bible. Of course, such an action places a dark cloud over christianity as viewed in hindsight…as do many other such atrocities.

    Any good sources on Tyndall you recommend?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      I’m afraid I’ve never read a biography of him, but I should think that David Daniell’s would be the authoritative one.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  January 20, 2017

      Same reason Galileo was almost executed by the Church, etc. (“Roman Inquisition”). He got away with prolonged house arrest. Those in power don’t appreciate others’ providing information challenging the basis for their power, and those in power act on it.
      Suggest “Galileo’s Middle Finger Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science” by Alice Dreger

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  January 19, 2017

    Bart, best synopsis of the run up to the KJV I’ve ever read. … Roughly, which side, Anglican or Puritan, made the most concessions in arriving at the revision? Thanks!

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 19, 2017

    Fascinating that “the” Bible for so many uses texts that are far from being the best ones.

  6. Avatar
    jmmarine1  January 19, 2017

    How much has the New Testament changed since Westcott and Hort’s (W&H) The New Testament in the Original Greek? How different are the UBS5 and the NA27 from W&H?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      Not a whole lot, actually, even though the scholars producing the newer texts sometimes claim that their efforts are far superior. They aren’t much different in most places.

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  January 19, 2017

    It seems like the “King James Only” have forgotten much of what you have said. Are there marked or significant differences in the text from these different English translations? If so can you cite an example?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      These transalations were not hugely different from each other in the words they used….

  8. Avatar
    Saemund  January 19, 2017

    So just today I was watching a debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell. Cardinal once said, in support of Christianity, that Christianity helped the Roman empire abolish slavery (or something like that?) and that Christianity supported the role of women in the Roman empire. I find that hard to believe when I think about the Middle Ages (yeah, I know the Dark Ages is mostly a myth.) So my question: Is there any evidence that Christianity actually helped the Roman empire when it comes to slavery and the role of women? And if you can’t answer that, is there any book I can read on the subject? It’s difficult to find something that is not written by a priest or a pastor with an agenda…

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      No, actually there is some evidence to the contrary. I deal with the topic a bit in my forthcoming book The Triumph of Christianity, based on an article by Roman social historian Ramsay MacMullen, What Difference Did Christianity Make. (Answer: not much, when it comes to social issues)

      • Avatar
        Saemund  January 20, 2017

        Yeah, I wish your book were already available to read. Can’t wait! And thanks for mentioning that article; I’ll look into that.

  9. TWood
    TWood  January 19, 2017

    So as far as the most important translators of the Hebrew/Greek scriptures into a Bible (after the LXX)… it was ‘mystery man’ into Syriac, Jerome into Latin, Erasmus into Greek, Luther into German, Tyndale into English, is that right?—and are there other figures who match up to these guys (for other languages)?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      Erasmus was not translating the Bible into Greek; he was making a Greek edition of the New Testament based on surviving Greek manuscripts.

      • TWood
        TWood  January 20, 2017

        I knew his NT was Greek to Greek, but for some reason I thought he also translated the Hebrew OT into Greek… so if he only created a Greek NT, that means that the Textus Receptus is only dependent upon Erasmus in regards to the NT—is that right?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 22, 2017

          No, he translated the Hebrew into English. And yes, the TR refers only to the NT.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 20, 2017

      By “Syriac” are you refering to the Peshitta specifically?

      • TWood
        TWood  January 22, 2017

        Yeah, from what I glean, it’s not certain who translated it… is that not the case?

        • talmoore
          talmoore  January 24, 2017

          From what I understand it was translated from the Greek back into Aramaic (Syriac) by a Christian community in Syria ca. 3rd or 4th centuries.

          • TWood
            TWood  January 25, 2017

            Yeah, that seems to be what is commonly understood (which I have no evidence to doubt). I think some people date its origin to even earlier than the 3rd century. But my question had to do with a specific person (e.g. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, Luther’s German, Tyndale’s English, etc.). I’ve yet to find a lot of evidence that links the Peshitta to a specific person(s).

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  January 19, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I have a highly academic, off topic question. What role did German Idealism have in the evolution of German Theology of the 19th century?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      Apparently a lot, but I’m not an expert on 19th century theology.

  11. Avatar
    mjt  January 20, 2017

    So why did the KJV become THE translation, and not the Bishops Bible or the Geneva Bible?

  12. Avatar
    AdamHeckathorn  January 20, 2017

    Thanks to my sister’s research I now know much more about my family history. It is a history full of religious convictions, passions and all too often violence. Thanks for shining a light on this distant dark past. It tells me a little of how we got to where we are today.

  13. Avatar
    godspell  January 20, 2017

    I see there was no Tyndale translation of Ecclesiastes.

    Who gets credit for “Vanity of Vanities, all is Vanity”?

    Certainly a supremely relevant text for today.


    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      Tyndale’s associates translated it. I”m not sure who did Ecclesiastes.

      • Avatar
        godspell  January 20, 2017

        So in his tradition, you might say.

        It’s not as if we know who wrote the original, either. And isn’t our modern obsession with authorship itself a form of vanity? Like who cares who really wrote The Art of the Deal?

        Sorry, taking refuge in philosophy today. :\

  14. Robert
    Robert  January 20, 2017

    ” But the genius goes back to one man, William Tyndale, burned at the stake for his efforts.”

    Actually, he was strangled first and then his body was burned, as can be seen in these actual photographs:



    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      Ah, thanks. (But, uh, photographs??)

      • Robert
        Robert  January 21, 2017

        A little humor.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  January 21, 2017

        I’ve read they also dug up Wycliffe’s bones and burned them at the same time they killed Tyndale.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  January 20, 2017

      Those burned at the stake USUALLY were killed first. Some already dead: ask Oliver Cromwell.

  15. Robert
    Robert  January 20, 2017

    What did Tyndale know of Wycliffe’s earlier ‘English’ translation fro the Vulgate? I know he sometimes shows some dependence upon Luther’s and other translations, but I don’t know how widespread Wycliffe’s translation was at the time.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      I don’t know either!

      • Robert
        Robert  January 21, 2017

        I took a look at David Daniell’s biography. Apparently, Tyndale came from an area where the Lollards were still strong.

        “Lollards had kept alive the Wyclif Bible, in spite of the Constitutions of Oxford of 1408 which expressly forbade the translation of any part of Scripture into English by any man on his own authority, under pain of punishment as a heretic. Some who heard Tyndale preach would have had access to a complete manuscript Bible, for Lollardy was not confined to the poor. Others would have seen parts, or even scraps. The Bible in English was not unknown. (p 57)

        Apparently, there were continuing revisions of Wycliffe’s translation of the Vulgate, and Daniell does show some similarities between Tyndale’s theological writings with a “Wycliff B,” one of these revisions (p 129). But Daniell gives plenty of other examples, especially from Genesis, to show that Tyndale’s translation was certainly original and from the Hebrew. That was never in doubt, of course.

        Apparently, if Wikipedia is to be trusted here, some influence of Wycliffe’s translation upon the King James Version is more indirect:

        “.. due to the common use of surviving manuscripts of Wycliffe’s Bible as works of an unknown Catholic translator, this version continued to circulate among 16th-century English Catholics, and many of its renderings of the Vulgate into English were adopted by the translators of the Rheims New Testament. Since the Rheims version was itself to be consulted by the translators working for King James a number of readings from Wycliffe’s Bible did find their way into the Authorized King James Version of the Bible at second hand.”

  16. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  January 20, 2017

    Are you saying that a large part of the literary merit of the KJV also goes back to Tyndale, consistent with the notion that works of genius are usually produced by a single individual?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2017

      Yes, much of it goes back to the genius of Tyndale.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  January 21, 2017

        Just when I was about to make a witty remark about the KJV being the greatest work of any kind ever produced by a committee you teach me it was mostly Tyndale.

  17. Avatar
    novotnycurse  January 22, 2017

    “Approximately 92% of the words in the KJV are actually the words of Tyndale.”

    You don’t explain why, if this is the case, it took seven years for all these translators to produce the KJV!

    “Any good sources on Tyndall you recommend?”

    A very readable book on this sad saga is The Murderous History of Bible Translations: Power, Conflict, and the Quest for Meaning by Harry Freedman (2016).

    “In 1535, William Tyndale, the first man to produce an English version of the Bible in print, was captured and imprisoned in Belgium. A year later he was strangled and then burned at the stake. His co-translator was also burned. In that same year the translator of the first Dutch Bible was arrested and beheaded. These were not the first, nor were they the last instances of extreme violence against Bible translators. The Murderous History of Bible Translations tells the remarkable, and bloody, story of those who dared translate the word of God.”

    Freedman is not necessarily an academic scholar but he can definitely write well.

    He also refers to my favourite version: ‘thou shalt commit adultery’ in a 1631 translation under Charles 1st.

  18. Avatar
    chupacabra  January 22, 2017

    As you point out, it is often taught that the Catholic Church did everything in its power to keep the bible from being translated into vulgate for fear of inadvertently fostering or abetting heresy. While the Church’s prudish recalcitrance to innovate in unquestionable, I often wonder whether their problems with bible translation truly lied in their fear of giving rise to competing interpretations. Since you are not one to shy away from reconsidering incorrect historical notions (e.g., the idea that minstrels of old repeated popular tales with scrupulous accuracy to preserve their integrity,) perhaps you will be able inclined to address my concerns. Here are the reasons why I think the Church must have had less practical reasons for opposing translation:
    1) Most people throughout the middle ages and the renaissance were illiterate, hence they could not have read the Bible in any language.
    2) Even assuming a few literate Christians would have been inclined to challenge the Church’s doctrine, they would have had no way of getting their message out before the invention of the printing press. Moreover, as previously stated, most people could not have read any book, printed or otherwise.
    3) During the middle ages, the Church had not reason to fear a major schism such as the one precipitated by the reformation, since there was no precedents for such cataclysmic shifts.
    Couldn’t the Church have opposed the translation of the Bible principally as a form of staunch reverence for what they considered the “original” text? After all, that is usually the explanation that is given for Muslim’s historical resistance to translating the Qur’an.

    Thanks for your time.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2017

      My sense is that they were more concerned about the proper interpretation of the Bible than the “original” text.

  19. Avatar
    Jana  January 25, 2017

    You said authorities caught up with Tyndale .. which authorities? The Catholic church? Was the threat to the Church’s power? (I recall this thread being mentioned in another blog)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2017

      The governmental authorities, who were closely aligned with the leaders of the church.

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